Mainline Protestantism Could Have Just 23 Easters Left

St. John’s Church, across from Lafayette Square, has been home to several U.S. presidents. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

St. John’s Church, across from Lafayette Square, has been home to several U.S. presidents. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Christians recently celebrated Easter, a Sunday where many churches are robust and full. But, if current trends continue, mainline Protestantism has about 23 Easters left.

The news of mainline Protestantism’s decline is hardly new. Yet the trend lines are showing a trajectory toward zero in both those who attend a mainline church regularly and those who identify with a mainline denomination 23 years from now.

While the sky isn’t falling, the floor is dropping out.

The trajectory, which has been a discussion among researchers for years, is partly related to demographics. Mainline Protestants, which has been the tradition of several U.S. presidents, aren’t “multiplying” with children as rapidly as evangelicals or others of differing faiths. And geography matters. Places where Protestants live are now in socio-economic decline, and parts of the country like the Sun Belt are become more evangelical with every passing winter.

And as Episcopal researcher Kirk Hadaway explained in 1998, “nontraditional groups, including once-marginal Protestant churches, smaller sects and non-Western religions, have increased. At the same time, a growing number of people have shed their particular religious affiliations, saying they are just ‘religious, spiritual’ or have no religion at all.”

But I think something deeper is going on.

The data of decline

Recently released data from the General Social Survey, sorted by what is called the RelTrad, shows that mainline Protestants are in the midst of a decades-long decline, and it has intensified in its most recent survey.

The top line shows mainline Protestant identification, and fewer say they go to churches affiliated with mainline denominations. The bottom line shows attendance, and now less than one of 33 people you meet on the street regularly attends a mainline Protestant church.

Both markers, self-identification and regular attendance, are imperfect, as are the GSS and the RelTrad, but these are among the most widely cited and trusted tool researchers use to measure religious trends. Those trend lines into the future gives us a glimpse of what could happen if patterns don’t change.

If the data continues along the same pattern, mainline Protestants have an expiration date when both trend lines cross zero in 2039. If the trend line continues, they have 23 Easters left.

It’s not the whole story, but here’s an argument for at least part of what has happened. Over the past few decades, some mainline Protestants have abandoned central doctrines that were deemed “offensive” to the surrounding culture: Jesus literally died for our sins and rose from the dead, the view of the authority of the Bible, the need for personal conversion and more.

Some of mainline Protestants leaders rejected or minimized these beliefs — beliefs that made the “protest” in Protestantism 500 years ago — as an invitation for more people to join a more culturally relevant and socially acceptable church. But if the mainline Protestant expression isn’t different enough from mainstream culture, people turn to other answers.

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SOURCE: The Washington Post
Ed Stetzer

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